The Out of Time Motel

by D. Gansen

 

I heard thunder roll behind me like a faraway drum solo. “Oh man,” I muttered. It was dark and I was lost somewhere south of the interstate in the middle of North Dakota. Now, I was going to get caught in a storm and I was driving my dad’s ’69 Boss Mustang. The thought of hail deflowering its pristine, black, shiny-as-glass lacquer, made a lump of anguish jiggle in my stomach. It was the second car my dad ever owned, and he was pretty much in love with it; but on my seventeenth birthday, he handed me the keys and title. I almost started to bawl. I didn’t though, because men don’t cry over sentimental stuff.

My headlights made a puddle of light that led me down the road, but all around me was the prairie darkness. Then, like a miracle, as the first drops of rain fell, I saw a light ahead. I put my foot down and pretty soon I could read the sign. Individual yellow light bulbs lined up to announce: Out of Time Motel. It wasn’t a very reassuring name, but I turned in anyway and was relieved that the parking lot was asphalt, not gravel. The paint, you know. I stopped under the green fiberglass awning and smiled to myself as the rain tapped on it, trying in vain to get to my car.

I rolled down the window and looked through the wall of glass into the office and saw some chairs and the registration counter. There was no clerk, but all the lights were on and the neon sign beside the door told me that there was a vacancy.

I grabbed my duffle bag out of the back seat and went in. It was Dad’s duffle bag from when he was in the Guard. I wasn’t sentimental about it. It was just handy.

The little brass bell on the door jingled and startled me, and by the time I turned back to the counter, a young woman was standing behind it, looking at me. She didn’t say anything for a couple of seconds. Women stare at me all the time. Why not? I’m twenty-five, tall, and good looking.

“I found you just in time,” I said, gesturing behind me. It had started to rain hard. By then, I was beginning to get the impression that she wasn’t admiring me—she was studying me.

“It’s only going to get worse, too,” she remarked.

I could only see her from the waist up and it struck me as odd that someone so young would be wearing a crisp, short-sleeved white blouse and have her hair all humped up like Mom did when she was a kid. She made me think of Laura Petrie on that old TV show, Dick Van Dyke.

On the counter, a book lay open. She took the silver pen from its stand and offered it to me. When I got closer, I saw that she was holding a fountain pen. I had only seen those in old movies. The register was one of those books that you write your name and license plate number in.

The girl must’ve seen that I was puzzled, because she explained, “My boss is a nostalgia freak.” She pointed to the lobby and I noticed that the furniture was low and tailored and that gross avocado green like the toaster Mom threw away a long time ago. On the brown Formica-topped coffee table were magazines with names I didn’t recognize. One had a picture of the old president, John F. Kennedy, on it.

The girl took my credit card and, to my amazement, put it through one of those manual machines that makes a carbon copy of the number on a piece of paper.

“Out of Time Motel must mean out of step with time,” I said, giving her one of my charming smiles.

She looked at my card before handing it back to me. “Well, John, everything is relative.” That seemed like an odd thing to say and I was beginning to feel awkward, but she continued. “Cable hasn’t made it out here and we’re out of reach of any cell towers. Consider yourself in the mid twentieth century, it will be less stressful.”

“No problem,” I said, but took a look at my phone and felt like a junkie looking at an empty nickel bag. I nodded at the door on my right. “Is that a diner next door?” Just then a bolt of lightning brightened the room like an atom bomb flash, instantly followed by a staggering explosion. I ducked instinctively. “Jesus!” I yelled. “That was close!” Then hail started to fall out of the sky like white buckshot.

The girl was perfectly calm and glanced around the room. “Good. It’s still the twentieth century.” I assumed she was kidding and smiled. Then she pointed towards an alcove where an antique vending machine stood beside an even more ancient Coke machine that looked like a big metal cooler. “Diner’s closed for the winter. There are plenty of stale cheese crackers.”

I squinted at the vending machine—all fake wood and buzzing fluorescent lights. My stomach growled.

“How about a hot dog?” she asked. “Put your bag in your room and come back.” She handed me a key on a ring with a plastic tag.

*****

The room was the same as the lobby: all ’60’s and ’70’s furniture. Everything looked new. “Reproduction,” I told myself. I didn’t think about it much, though. Decorating is a woman thing.

Back in the lobby, I checked the nameplate on the registration desk. “Stella?” I asked it. “Who names their kid ‘Stella’?”

“Come on back, Johnny,” Stella shouted. Nobody had called me “Johnny” since I was thirteen and announced that I would no longer answer to it. My grandfather’s name had been John, and I wanted to be like him.

I passed the desk and stepped through an open door. Now I seemed to be in Great Aunt Lilly’s living room. There was dark, stuffed furniture and a big wooden cabinet like hers. She had called it a sideboard. A record was spinning on the phonograph and a woman was singing something about the “white cliffs of Dover.” Because of my interest in the Second World War, I knew it was a song from the 1940s. I looked down at the bomber pilot’s jacket I was wearing. It had been Granddad’s way back then.

“Hey Johnny,” Stella called again. I would have to tell her to lay off the “Johnny” bit.

She was in the kitchen, pulling hot dogs out of a pot of boiling water with tongs. The pot was avocado green, the stove was avocado green, the refrigerator was… you guessed it. I had returned to the ’70s. As I put my hand on the back of one of the chrome and plastic chairs, I caught a movement in the corner of my eye and turned. Sitting just inside the back door was the biggest German shepherd that I had ever seen. He was making purposeful eye contact with me, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had said, “Wie geht’s?”

“That’s Mr. Beretta,” Stella said.

I put my coat on the back of the chair and sat, but Mr. Beretta did not take his eyes off me. “Has he killed anybody lately?” I asked. I squirted ketchup out of a bottle that looked like it belonged in the diner.

“It’s been awhile,” she said.

I looked up to make sure she was kidding, but now she was staring at my coat.

“It’s a bomber jacket,” I said. “Granddad was a B-17 pilot in the Second World War. A B-17 is a…”

“Bomber plane,” she finished. “I’ll give you fifteen hundred dollars for it.”

I choked on the bite of hot dog I’d just taken.

“Okay, two thousand. Cash.”

I loved that jacket even more than I loved the Mustang. Not in a sentimental way. It’s just that it was so cool.

“No!” I said louder than was necessary.

Mr. Beretta’s ears perked up.

“Okay. Relax.” Stella sat back and folded her arms.

I could feel her eyeing me. I ate in case it was going to be my last meal. Two hot dogs later, she let me in on what she was thinking.

“Johnny,” she started. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

Ghosts! What next? Wasn’t this place weird enough? “I never thought about it,” I said, “but they seem like sentimental wishful thinking or too much imagination to me.” Neither of those conditions cluttered my mind.

Stella sighed. “Yes. Humans do a lot of wishful thinking. But,” she continued, “there are places in the universes where essences, or one of your imaginative people might say ‘spirits,’ get caught.” She glanced at her watch and got up. “We have time. Let me show you what I mean.”

The hot dogs were flailing around in my stomach. I had to go; I couldn’t outrun Mr. Beretta. The dog gave way so she could open the back door, and he and I followed her out onto the cement patio.

I thought I was losing my mind. The surface, open to the elements, was dry. The sky was clear and glittering with constellations, but I could still hear the thunder and the rain.

Stella raised her arm and pointed to our left: westward. It was darker than the inside of my closet where I used to hide when my poor little sister screamed because no one could understand the sounds she made. She was trapped in her head, inhabiting her own strange world. Now I was trapped in this one.

About two hundred yards away, a glow was silently moving and growing. I considered running, but I wasn’t afraid. It was just instinct, I guess. It took a long time for me to make out its shape—their shape, and when I did, I squeezed my eyes shut then opened them, but it didn’t help.

Six ghostly horses and their ghostly riders were charging towards us. It was like watching the negative print of an old western movie. Hooves churned, spurs flew, the men gestured and their lips moved, but I couldn’t hear them.

As they passed I could see every detail in glowing white. Their hats were stained with sweat, their long mustaches fluttered, their six-shooters glittered and their rifles flapped in their scabbards. Then they carried on with their chase or flight, gradually disappearing into the east.

I closed my gaping mouth, sucked in a lungful of cold air and shouted, “What the hell was that?”

Stella waved at the flicker they had become. “I call it the ‘posse’. In 1866 they rode into that canyon after a gang that had robbed a bank and killed five people. The posse was ambushed and murdered. Now, they’re trapped in the Vortex, and every Friday night they ride into that canyon. And I don’t know how to help them.” When she and Mr. Beretta went in, I stood like an idiot staring after them.

I wasn’t scared. Granddad wasn’t scared when he piloted his shot-up B-17 toward England after bombing the hell out of Germany. Even when he realized he couldn’t make it, he kept it level so the crew could bail out. He was a hero and I wanted to be like him. So I went inside and started yelling. “What the hell was that?” Mr. Beretta glared but I didn’t care. “Who are you? Why did you show me that?”

Stella looked at me with her dark calm eyes. She put two cans of beer on the table and opened them with a pointed can opener. I sat down in a hurry and took a couple of big gulps.

“Johnny,” Stella started. I scowled at her and she tried again. “John, if I didn’t need your help, I wouldn’t have shown you and I wouldn’t have brought you here.”

“Brought me? I’m on my way to see…” I couldn’t finish while she was shaking her head.

“Your cousin in Wyoming would be very surprised to see you.”

Marley and I had exchanged emails. “Are you some kind of hacker?” I asked.

Again she shook her head. “I’m the most powerful Vortex guardian in all the universes. If it pertains to my job, I can do almost anything—almost.”

This was either silly or very serious. “Vortex,” I repeated. Mom and Dad liked to go to Sedona, Arizona, so I knew something about this. “Isn’t that supposed to be in Sedona where the hippies go for the vibes and you can get your palm read cheap?”

“We’ve provided that area with some atmosphere,” Stella said casually. She was saying all of this like we were just passing the time of day in simple gossip. I let her go on because I didn’t know what to say. “I can’t have a bunch of humans hanging around here,” she said. “It’s too dangerous. Even the Lakota Sioux won’t come within two miles of this spot. They don’t know what it is, but they don’t want to mess with it, either. You Europeans would come in droves because it would seem miraculous, and you know how you are when it comes to the possibility of a miracle.”

I wasn’t sure but I didn’t say so.

“I guard the Vortex because it can serve as a passage. It can be a passage between universes, dimensions, planes, times… or any combination of those. Things get through from time to time and I have to catch them and send them back. I imagine you’ve seen some of the TV shows about chupacabra or werewolves or UFOs. They didn’t get through my Vortex, but all the guardians aren’t as watchful as I am.”

I’m not superstitious at all, so this all sounded crazy to me, but I’m as curious as the next guy and it didn’t look like they were going to kill me, so I went along with it. “Vortex,” I said again. “Is that where the posse came from?”

She turned her head away and scratched the brow of Mr. Beretta who had come to sit on the floor beside her. “No. They died so close to the Vortex that a part of them got trapped. The energy of the Vortex holds them here. Even if the person doesn’t die here, if something that’s, let’s say ‘imbued with their spirit’ is brought here, the Vortex will draw out that spirit and hold it, too.” She gestured in the direction of the diner.

I turned to look at it through the window. There were lights on inside. “I thought it was closed,” I said, then felt sick when she replied.

“It is.” She rose and leaned over the sink and opened the window. I could hear music.

*****

Stella turned and looked me in the eye and asked, “Scared, John? Do you want to see why I brought you here and why I wanted your coat?”

I wasn’t scared when I dug my fingers into the fleece lining of Granddad’s coat, just wary. Great Aunt Lilly gave me the coat for my eighteenth birthday. It had been one of the few things left of Granddad’s. Grandma burned everything she could get her hands on after he died. I never knew Grandma, so I asked Great Aunt Lilly about that. She told me that Grandma had been angry. I had to push her pretty hard and use my favorite nephew status to get her to say more, and even then, she averted her eyes and said that her brother had not been quite faithful to Grandma. That didn’t seem like a reason to burn a guy’s stuff. Granddad had been a kid back then, and Grandma hadn’t gone with him to South Dakota where he got his training. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he had a fling.

Great Aunt Lilly had given me a picture, too. It was a picture of Granddad and his crew standing in front of their bomber. She had always told me I looked like him and the picture proved it. There he was: young, smiling, hat cocked to one side, hands in the pockets of his jacket—now my jacket. It could have been me standing there. Great Aunt Lilly had the jacket because Granddad had forgotten it the last time he left—when he left and never came back.

“Show me,” I said. If Granddad wasn’t afraid to fly that sputtering plane on two engines until all the other guys in that picture got out, even though he knew it would be too late for him to escape, I guessed I could face a ghost.

I followed her back to the lobby but the dog stayed behind. To make sure she knew I wasn’t scared, I made a joke. “Is he a guardian, too?”

Stella didn’t laugh. “Yes. He chose to be a dog this time.”

I kept quiet as we entered the lobby and passed through the door to the diner. I prepared myself for what might be in there. I hugged Granddad’s coat. Great Aunt Lilly told me that his last words to her were, “Don’t worry about me.” Of course she worried about him. He had been on his way back to the war, back to flying that big heavy airplane six hours one way, all the time taking fire from the ground and from the sky; and six hours back to England, concentrating, muscling those primitive controls, putting the danger out of his mind while he tried to find his way home and keep his men alive.

I stepped into the diner. Was it built yesterday? The chrome gleamed, the plastic was smooth and the colors were intense in the sunny fluorescent light. The jukebox glowed, and a hundred little bulbs on its front flashed red, then blue, then green. It was playing some peppy, swingy music and I wondered who had put their quarters (no, it said five cents) into the slot and pushed the buttons.

Stella glanced at her dainty little watch again and gestured me to one of the turquoise upholstered booths. “The owner had this diner brought up from Rapid City,” she said. “The Vortex took it over.” She put a finger to her lips.

I heard voices. They were faint at first, but as they got louder, the speakers became visible. A group of six teenagers appeared beside the jukebox. They were talking and laughing and dancing a little. The girls were wearing full, calf-length skirts and white socks and loafer shoes. The boys were wearing white t-shirts and jeans with the hems rolled up a few times. They were wearing white socks and loafers, too. They didn’t seem to notice us.

The middle-aged couple now sitting at the counter didn’t notice us, either, or the guy with a newspaper sitting a few stools away. There was a pale young man behind the counter who put a cup of coffee down in front of the newspaper man, then leaned his elbows on the speckled Formica of the counter. He sighed and wiped something off his cheek.

The bell on the door jingled, and I craned my neck over the booth to see. Another young man had come in, but this one… My heart punched me in the chest. He was wearing khaki flight overalls and a bomber captain’s hat. He looked just like me. Stella grabbed my arm to keep me from getting up. “Wait,” she whispered.

The newcomer smiled happily and approached the counter. “Greg!” he said to the other young man. “I’m back!” There was no response or acknowledgement. The young man in the coveralls, Granddad, stepped back and frowned.

Stella released me. I jumped up and yelled, “Granddad!”

The young man looked at me for a minute. Of course he didn’t know who in the hell I was or why I was calling him “granddad.” He didn’t even know he had a son. Dad was born eight months after he left—two after he died.

I wonder what he thought as he realized that I was his double. My heart banged against my chest again as he crossed the twenty feet that separated us. I couldn’t speak, but he said, “Who the hell are you?” It never occurred to him to be afraid at the sudden appearance of a strangely dressed doppelganger.

I had to swallow hard before I managed to say, “John Dealy.”

His green eyes didn’t flicker, but there was a long pause and I could tell he was thinking, trying to make sense of it. He looked slowly around the diner, letting his eyes linger on the young man behind the counter. Finally he said, “I’m John Dealy.”

The lump came up in my throat again and tears were trying to squeeze their way into my eyes, but I certainly wasn’t going to cry in front of a fearless war hero. “I know. Dad wanted me named after you.”

“Who’s your dad?”

“Gavin Dealy. Grandma’s name was Marge and I had a Great Aunt Lilly.”

The young man blinked. “Marge,” Granddad murmured. His green eyes darkened like mine do when I’m sad, then they brightened and he said, “Little Lilly.” There was another long silence since, apparently, I had been struck dumb. He was more resilient than me. “How long has it been?” he asked.

I glanced at Stella, but she wouldn’t step in.

“Sixty-six years,” I said.

“They must all be gone by now.”

“Your whole crew survived, Granddad.” I was excited to be able to tell him that. “Three of ’em lived long enough to see your name on the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.” I don’t think that meant much to him. Did they even call it World War II back then? “I even talked to one of ’em five years ago. His name was Coffee. He said great things about you.” That old man had reinforced my desire to be like my granddad.

The young man in front of me smiled. He remembered them as he had known them: young, like him. “They were good kids.”

“You’re a hero, Granddad. You saved them.”

At that, he looked at me hard and I thought he was angry, but his green eyes softened before he said, “It wasn’t heroic, I was responsible for them.”

“Was it scary?” I dared whisper.

“Not for long.”

“You were scared?” The words got stuck in my throat for a second.

“Sure,” Granddad said. “Anybody who says they’ve never been scared is either stupid or a liar.” He was matter-of-fact about it. Then I saw that he was looking at my coat—his coat. I was clutching it. I must’ve seemed like a kid hugging his security blanket, like Suzy hung on to that goofy stuffed elephant I won at a carnival. He must’ve wondered where I got his old coat.

“Great Aunt Lilly gave it to me just before she… died.” I continued without thinking. “Grandma burned everything else.”

Granddad rubbed his chin and once again turned his head to see the sad young man at the counter. “Well, I don’t blame her,” he finally said. “She gave me a break though, and promised not to tell anyone else.” He went on before I had a chance to ask what he meant. “I don’t suppose you know what happened to…” he gestured with his chin towards the counter, “Greg.”

I didn’t even know who Greg was, but Stella said softly behind me, “He committed suicide when he found out you were dead.”

I was surprised when tears filled those green eyes that were just like mine. “Poor kid,” he said. Then he looked at Stella. “Why can’t he see me?”

“You’re on different planes. It’s like there’s a wall between you.”

A tear ran down Granddad’s cheek.

“Give him the coat, John,” Stella said. “They’ve both touched it at the same time. It will bring them together.”

That’s why she had wanted my coat. She was a determined Vortex guardian.

Granddad looked at me. He wanted it bad, I could tell. I knew I would give it to him, but it was hard to get my arms to hold it out. When he touched it, I suddenly felt bigger somehow. I knew he felt it, too, because his eyes widened. We both held it. I didn’t want to let go. Maybe he didn’t either, but that other young man was more important to him than a stranger like me.

My hands opened slowly and I gave him one of those trembly, screwed up smiles people do when they’re about to burst into tears. That young man, war hero, and my grandfather saluted me. “Thank you, Johnny,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Thank you.”

I saluted him, like a little kid imitating an adult, like that little boy in the pictures of John Kennedy’s funeral.

Then my granddad put on the jacket.

Suddenly, the young man at the counter straightened, grinned, and yelled, “Johnny!” He jumped up and easily slid over the counter. He ran into Granddad’s arms. I could tell he was crying.

It was more than the hug of two casual friends, and I think I know why Grandma had been so angry, but I felt glad for them. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. I didn’t even notice when the jukebox went silent, or when the teenagers disappeared, or the middle-aged couple, or the newspaper man. Even after the two young men faded away, I kept staring at the empty place.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but eventually I realized that I still had my arm raised in that final gesture of respect. It was pretty sentimental of me.

“You did it, John,” Stella said.

I didn’t even turn around when I said, “You can call me Johnny.” Granddad had been scared, so it was okay for me to be scared. Granddad had cried and been sentimental, so I could be those things, too. I felt my shoulders shake and, for the first time since I was thirteen, I heard myself sob. I had told myself so many times that men don’t cry. When Great Aunt Lilly died, I had stood, stone-faced in front of her coffin. My dog, Jake, had gone to sleep for the last time while, dry-eyed, I had held his paw. And Suzy… poor little Suzy, screaming and screaming because she couldn’t make anyone understand her. Poor Suzy, with her face frozen into a squint so nobody could tell she was smiling—nobody but me. I should have cried for her.

I was sad, but somehow, I felt relieved, too. It was like Granddad’s coat had been something heavy and letting go of it had changed me. After I blew my nose and rubbed my face dry, I returned to Stella and said, “He was a hero.”

*****

That Vortex guardian and I talked for a long time about what had happened and how she could help the other inhabitants of the diner. Later, in the ’70s-inspired hotel room, I slept like a man with a clear conscience and a clean bill of health.

By the time I was ready to leave, it was nine a.m. I had my duffel bag but not my coat when I left the room and walked into a bright, cool day. A lot had changed out there.

The parking lot asphalt was broken and weedy. The sign was leaning and peeling. I turned to look at the building. The Out of Time Motel had turned into a broken down relic: a matriarch who looked her age. I don’t know why I wasn’t surprised. Maybe I was all surprised out.

I walked to my car, which was now sitting under a dangerously leaning awning, and tossed my bag into the back seat. I turned to the plywood wall which had once been glass and saw a little sign stapled where the door had been. Written in faded black marker was one final message from the past: Closed.

 

What Happens After the Funeral

by Carrie Naughton

 

I know it’s George calling because I’ve set his ringtone to oogah horn. I yank my honking phone out of my purse.

“Yello,” I mumble, ducking into the lightbulbs aisle.

“Poopy doopy doop!”

“That’s me.”

“Are you on your goddamn cell phone?”

“I only have one phone, dumbass. That would be the one you’re calling.”

“When are you gonna get a real phone? With a landline. Like normal people.”

“When are you gonna realize that’s what normal people did in like, 1997? Besides, now you can talk to me while I shop for essential home items at Target and kill my afternoon gin and tonic buzz.”

“Oooh, Target? Will you get me one of those three packs of boxer shor—”

“I will not buy your boxers for you.”

“Come on. Nah, nevermind. Listen! When’re you gonna be home. I’m gonna pick you up and you’re going with me to Melrose.”

Ah, Melrose. My favorite town in all of Montana. Even if I’ve never been there. But it’s so beautiful when you drive by it on Interstate 15. Tucked in alongside the Big Hole River, shaded by giant cottonwoods…” How far is that? That’s like three hours from Missoula.”

“Maybe the way you drive. It’s two.” He takes a drink, and I hear ice rattling in a glass. “Two!”

“Why’re you going to Melrose?” Hhmm… Do I need lightbulbs? Maybe those little ones for my nightlight. Gotta have the nightlight on, to keep away the ghosts.

“Did I ever tell you about my lucky mug?”

“Maybe. Will these lightbulbs fit my nightlight? Do they make all nightlight bulbs the same?”

“What? Gahhhd. Get off the cell phone!”

“You wanna hang up?”

“When’re you gonna be home?”

“I’m almost done here. Twenty minutes. Melrose… why?”

“Cuz I gotta get my lucky mug. I left it at the fly fishing shop like six months ago when Jay and I were down there shooting that documentary.”

“And why do you have to go get it right now, at five o’clock on a Saturday?”

“What else you got to do? What, are you gonna go home and light some candles and put on some Carly Simon and take a bath?”

“No, that’s what you do.”

“You are.”

“You are. Fine. Pick me up in thirty minutes.”

“Righteous. And we’re goin’ to the titty bar in Rocker.”

“Whhyyyyyy?”

“What, you don’t wanna go to the titty bar? Don’t be such a girl.”

“I am a girl.”

“You’ll love the titty bar. I’ll buy ya a lap dance.”

“You’re buying drinks. You can have the lap dance.”

“Thirty minutes. You better be ready.”

“When am I not?”

“Mmmm… hey! Ginger? Hey!”

“I’m still here.” In fact, I’m on a trajectory to the checkout line by way of the snacks aisle. Road food.

“Bring your iPod. You got any Noisettes?”

“Is that a candy?” I pause between the candy and the chips ’n crackers.

“What? It’s a band. How come you don’t know about the Noisettes? You’re my connection to pop culture.”

“And you’re my connection to male menopause. Man-opause. Why do we need my iPod? You’ve got XM in the Forester.”

“Just bring it, poopy. And don’t forget the car connecter thingy. Bring the whole shit n’ kaboodle.”

I hang up, get some Maui Onion pretzels, and get the hell out of Target.

Thirty minutes later, George is honking a Subaru horn in my driveway. I barely have time to grab a fleece and a beer. He’s gonna piss off my neighbor.

“I brought snacks,” I tell him, slamming the car door. He waits until I’m situated with seatbelt on and purse safely stowed. This is George: obnoxious and gentlemanly. Short, well-groomed, in his midfifties. My BFF. Voice like a game show host and a predilection for liverwurst and martinis.

“What snacks? Oh… those pretzels that make your breath smell like butt.”

“But they’re so goooood. What’s this mug, now? This mug in Melrose?”

“It’s my favorite coffee mug. I’ve had it forever, since I first started working for the station.”

“What is it, like the plastic mug-with-a-lid kind? I’ve never seen it. What’s it look like?”

“Nothin’ special. Just a Conoco mug with a Falstaff beer sticker on it. From back when we had good slogans. Not this new pansy-ass New Age new shit.”

“New new new.”

He smirks.

“And so you left it at the flyshop.”

“Yep. I stopped in there to ask something, I don’t remember what now. And I just left it right there on the counter and didn’t realize it until we got back to Missoula.”

“Are they even gonna be open when we get there?”

“They better be.”

I don’t even bother pursuing this. George either called ahead or he didn’t. Who knows if the mug’s even there. I’m going to see Melrose. I’m going to walk its one street and think about how I’ll never live there because I would surely be run out of town as a commie treehugger.

We leave this crowded college town at a sensible speed and exit Hellgate Canyon in the sunset of a chilly late spring evening. I hate the Interstate right here. Everybody’s snowchains kill the asphalt and carve it into a washboarded gauntlet.

But I like this canyon, with its steep, piney cliffs hugging the road.

“This state is dying from pine beetles,” George complains. “Give it ten years, and every pine in Western Montana is going to die.”

I plug in my iPod and put on some Bette Davis. I know George will approve because he gave me the CD. And if you think I mean All About Eve Bette Davis, then you don’t know as much as you think you do.

Bette starts growling: …if I’m in luck I might get picked uuuupp…

George’s Forester zooms southeast on I-90 and we listen to Bette and shoot the shit.

“Have you ever seen Mountain of the Cannibal God?” George wants to know.

“Can’t say I have.”

“I Netflixed it last night. It’s got Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress in it. Or, as we used to call her back in high school, Ursula Undress. A buncha Italians made it, and it has to be one of the world’s worst movies. But it was filmed in Thailand, so there’s lotsa native tit.”

“Of course you suffered through to the end for that.”

“And the memorable scene where Stacy Keach says, “You never forget the taste of human flesh!”

It’s full dark by the time we hit Butte and catch I-15 South, and before you know it, we’re taking exit 93. Melrose. Seems like it should be a ghost town, but for the lights. A lot of ghost towns in Montana.

“What’s goin’ on tonight?” I wonder out loud. We turn off the frontage road into what qualifies as downtown Melrose, and there’s something like two hundred pickup trucks lining the street outside the Mint Bar.

It takes us longer to find a parking spot than it does for us to figure out that there’s a funeral going on. Or a wake. Whatever they call what happens after the funeral. There’s people packed to the walls inside the Mint, cowboys clutching bottles of Bud and staggering around on the sidewalks.

“Damn near every town in Montana has a Mint Bar,” George announces to me. “It’s a holdover from the mining and money days. Little bit ’o history for ya.”

We skirt the masses and I follow George down the bleary streetlamped sidewalk to the tackle shop. Which is closed. Dark and locked up. A lanky young cowpoke wearing tight Wranglers and Brut cologne passes by, and then doubles back to us.

“Harry closed up early for the fune’ral,” he tells us, squinting under the toxic glow of a sad little streetlight. “I think he’s down’t the bar.”

“With everybody else,” George adds.

“Come on over. Cel’brate the life of a good man with us.” He continues on, waving at someone up ahead.

“I could do some celebratin’ with him, at least.” I watch Wranglers amble his perfect ass into the Mint.

“This is gonna be a prototypical Butte Irish wake,” George says. “You ready to get your drink on?”

“Does this mean we skip the strip club?”

“Pffft. You wish. I’m thinking of this right now as Prelude to Le Titty Bar. Plus we gotta find this guy Harry. I want my lucky mug. Six months I’ve been using this other mug that in no way compares to the original lucky mug. It’s just temporary. My Temporary Lucky Mug. You’ve seen that one. I even wrote TLM on it. To remind me to get my ass to Melrose and get back my mug. Which is our mission tonight. Plus drinkin’. Maybe they’ve got Pyrat Rum. Now that’s good drinkin’. The Jaegermeister of Rum!”

“Let’s go then, matey. Operation Harry.”

I grab a wrinkled copy of today’s Anaconda Standard off a street bench while we walk.

“Wuzzat?” George slows down and peers over my shoulder.

“Somebody read the Obits and then tossed this.”

“It tell who died for this party tonight?”

“It does.” We stop, so I can read in the light near the bar entrance. The roar of mourners’ small talk rolls in waves out of the open doors, carrying with it the distinctive breeze of Marlboro smoke, sour beer, and cheap perfume.

“Donagh Doyle. Parents came from Ireland in 1887 and homesteaded near Melrose. He was born in 1916. Jeez. Served in World War II. Air Force ball turret gunner.”

“He musta been a little guy.”

“Aww, like you George.”

“Keep reading.”

“Flew twenty-six missions in a B-17.”

“Twenty-six missions?! Christ! You don’t see a belly gunner lasting twenty-six missions. Like, ever.”

It’s freezing out here on the streets of Melrose, even with the warm boozy air rushing out of the bar. I look at George, and it actually starts to snow, little flurries whirling around us. At first I think somebody’s cigarette ashed on us.

“Weird spring weather,” says George. “What else?”

“Donagh married his childhood sweetheart, Birdie. They bought a ranch and started roping wild horses up the canyon, broke ’em and sold ’em as saddle horses. Birdie died in 2002, but the family still runs the ranch.”

“Damn,” George breathes. I half-expect him to whip out his Moleskine notebook and jot down notes about the life of Donagh Doyle. But he only nods and says, “Let’s go celebrate this good man. And find Harry.”

Operation Harry commences and ends within two drinks and ten minutes of shuffling and elbowing our way through the bar. George can be charismatic and persistent, and the tipsy, grieving folk of Melrose are friendly and obliging. But Harry isn’t among them. He’s up at the town cemetery with a backhoe, readying the ground for Donagh Doyle.

When we get up there, after several wrong turns, it’s coming down snow like it’s Christmas Eve. And Harry isn’t alone.

“Ahoy!” George calls out, lifting an arm to wave as we walk up the hill toward the fake sun of a portable light tower. He takes a sip from his flask, which he somehow got the bartender to fill with Pyrat. I’m still carrying my bottle of Scapegoat, which I snuck out inside my jacket even though nobody in Montana cares about that.

“Help you?” A tall, angular man steps out of the shadows and sagebrush. He’s yelling as loud as George, because of the noise from the backhoe. He’s very bald and reminds me of a pale spider.

“Are you Harry?” George yells. George looks funny when he yells. Like a cartoon character.

“Nope! He’s runnin’ that backhoe!” Skinny guy nods, as if that settles it. A woman steps up next to him, moving through the gleaming swirls of snow.

Suddenly, the backhoe engine cuts off, and in the ensuing, graveyard quiet, the woman yells “Who’re you two supposed to be?” She’s maybe in her early sixties, with long black-dyed hair and garish red lipstick. She’s wearing pack boots and a black trenchcoat. Also she’s drunk off her ass and working her way, it appears, through a bottle of Bushmills.

“I’m Agent Mulder, and this is Agent Scully,” George says. “I’m here for my lucky mug. Is this your cemetery? Cuz if it’s not, it should be. You two really look the part.”

The woman takes a stagger-step backward and blinks snowflakes off her eyelashes.

“What’d he say?” She glares at us, and I decide she kinda looks like a casting call for a vampire movie.

Then Harry clambers down off the backhoe. “Don’t tell me… you’re George,” he says.

“No, he’s Agent Mulder,” explains the Bride of Dracula.

Harry grins, walks toward us with one meaty arm outstretched in a too zombiesque manner. I seriously consider dropping my beer bottle and running for my life, because suddenly this meeting in the graveyard is wigging me out. But Harry just wants to shake hands, and George introduces me, too. George and Ginger. It always sounds like we’re a pair of circus elephants.

“You come all the way up here to find me so you can get that mug back?” Harry folds his arms across his chest. They don’t stay there long. The arms are short and the chest is barrel, and so within a moment his hands kinda pressure-pop out from inside his elbows, like he’s an inflatable toy.

“So you did call ahead,” I nudge George. “Shocking.”

George ignores me. “You still got my mug?”

Harry shrugs. “’Course. But… it’s down locked up in the shop. And I gotta get this hole dug tonight in case the ground freezes. I waited till the last minute, but of course, you know with these spring storms. Might happen.”

I want to express my doubts about frozen tundra in April, even in Montana, but I stay silent. Mr. Skinny has one long arachnid arm around Dracula’s bride, and she’s watching me with narrowed eyes.

“Why you need Harry to get you a mug? Are you here for Donagh’s funeral? Do you even know Donagh?”

“How do you know Donagh?” George fires back.

“I know him,” she mutters, and lifts her bottle. We all toast the dearly departed. Surprisingly, George looks more somber than the rest of us.

It’s right about now that I understand we’re standing on a hilltop in Melrose, in the dark, with a buncha outcasts from a dead man’s wake, haranguing a guy about a plastic mug while he digs a grave.

“George, maybe we needa come back another time,” I tug at his sleeve.

“Naw,” Harry waves me off. “Can you all just wait a bit? I’m almost done with the requisite six feet.”

“The requisite six feet,” George laughs. He repeats anything he thinks is funny.

“That is not funny,” says Vampira.

“What is her deal?” I whisper to George.

“Her deal is for me to get as far away from her as possible,” he says. “Okay, we’ll just wait over here, then,” George announces, and we walk thirty steps to the porch of a little house, which is either the groundskeeper’s office or—

“You can just have a seat on those steps there,” Harry points. “They had the viewing inside earlier, so…”

“Well, we might wanna pay our respects.”

“George! No.” I sound like I’m training a puppy.

“Well, why not? He was a hero.”

Harry looks at Mr. Skinny. Mr. Skinny, propping up the Vampire Woman Who Knows Donagh, looks back. His lips quirk, a quiet skitter of the mouth. I can see that even from twenty yards.

“Sure, go on,” Harry tells us. “If ya like.”

George turns to me. “Yeah, we like,” he mutters.

“Are you serious? Do you really wanna wait an hour up here on Boot Hill before we can go get your mug? Do you really wanna go look at this dead guy? How much rum you got left?”

“I got plenty. And it’s Donagh Doyle. Not ‘this dead guy.’ What’s wrong with waiting? I know you’re all damp to get to the nudie bar, Ginge, but I want my mug. And while we’re here, we can drink to Donagh Doyle.”

“I am not damp to get to the nudie bar.” I take a swig of my beer. Two swigs, and it’s finished. “They probably think we’re total assholes. Your charm only goes so far. Maybe you shouldn’t interact with people at all. Just stay at home and do those mail order animal skeleton assembly kits. Or be a forest lookout. Or the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel.”

“Caretaker at the Overlook Hotel,” George chuckles, and it’s impossible to be mad at him.

“Fine. You go inside first.” I shove him.

“Aw, is this your first cadaver?”

“Yes. And you’ll be my second.”

George laughs his stage-show laugh. “And you’ll be my second…” he imitates me.

The inside of the cottage smells like furniture polish and carnations. People say carnations don’t have a smell, but I say they do. They smell like the inside of a florist’s cooler.

We’re standing behind several rows of folding chairs, with Doyle’s somber, closed casket on a dais at the front of the room.

“Whoa,” George stops as the door closes behind us. “I haven’t been in a funeral parlor since my dad died.” The lines of his face deepen. He’s a good human despite the dick jokes and the manpig bluster. Or perhaps because of all that.

“You okay?”

“Let’s see if they put lotsa pancake make-up on the poor bastard.”

Dear George. He’s the one who lifts the lid on the coffin. I stay back a few feet.

Donagh Doyle looks like a dead ninety-three year old Montana rancher. His face is lined and thin, and while there’s not too much make-up on it, there is a kind of melancholy. I expect if he were to open his eyes they would be sad, but the idea of those eyes opening is enough to make me take a step back.

His coffin is lined with white silk and he’s wearing a dark brown suit with a bolo tie. There’s a white carnation in his lapel buttonhole and a wornout pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots on his feet.

George is quiet for too long, staring at the dead guy.

“I think I’d almost rather be wrapped in muslin than put in clothes when I’m buried,” I tell George as I grab the flask out of his hand. “Something about clothes rotting is worse than rotting gauze. Or maybe I don’t like the idea of people playing dress-up with my corpse.”

“Or you have a mummy fetish.”

“Oh, for sure. Wrap me up and bury me with all my worldly treasures.”

“Yeah, like what? Your iPod and your Birkenstocks.”

“And that about sums it up.”

“I’ll make sure your iPod’s playing Neko goddamn Case.”

“What—like I’m going first? You’ll be toast long before me, you cantankerous old fart.”

“I think he just moved.”

“Shut up. It is kinda cold in here.”

“He moved. I’m serious.”

“I’m outta here.”

The door to the cottage bangs open. I half expect to see Harry and his cronies shamble toward us with Night of the Living Dead lurches and growls.

“Good news,” Harry claps his hands.

“You’re not a zombie,” I say.

“Huh? Listen, Jacob says he’ll finish the backhoe for me, and then we can go down to my shop and get your mug, sir.”

“That’s terrific,” George reverently closes the lid on Donagh, and I follow everyone out, with a couple glances back over my shoulder. Did he really move? Did the lid just move?

The actual obtaining of the lucky mug is quite the anticlimax. For me, at least. I swear George almost hugged it. Good thing he didn’t, because a moment later he popped the lid off and a smell like I imagine Mr. Doyle’s gonna exude in a few months reeked out of the cup and nearly knocked us all down.

“Gaakk!” George gags. “Nastynastynasty.”

“I ain’t touched it since you left it here last fall,” Harry protests. “It was just sittin’ under my counter here. So whatever was in there is what you put in there.”

“I’ll wash it out when I get home,” George says, cramming the top back on lucky nasty mug.

“You really come all this way out here just for this mug?” Harry asks for the second time tonight. He walks with us to the door. We wind our way through racks of inexpensive flyrods, gear vests, and waders.

“It’s my lucky mug,” George explains. “Reminds me that I’m alive.”

Harry smiles. “We all need that.” He flips off the lights, and I almost scream. “After you,” he says, and I fumble with the doorknob and yank the door open, shop bell chiming.

With a final round of handshakes, Harry leaves us on the sidewalk and departs for the bar. My guess is, he’s really glad we showed up and saved him from gravedigger duty.

“It’s colder than a well digger’s brass monkey tit out here,” George frowns. “Where’d we park? It’s still snowing. Mother of God.”

“It’s Montana. I’m glad you drove.”

“Yeah, me too. You’d run us into a ditch.”

“Piss off! I was saying that cuz you’ve got four-wheel drive. Where’d your ‘I got my lucky mug’ good mood go?”

“I got my lucky mug!” George does a little elfin jig, brandishing his mug, with its crusty Falstaff sticker and gnawed-looking handle. “I got my lucky mug!”

“And it smells like scrotum fug!”

“Scrotum fug!” George caws. “D’you make that up?”

“It rhymed.”

Back at the car, it takes forever to warm up.

“I can still smell that coffin,” George says.

“Gross.” But it does smell odd in the car. Like cold carnations. “My liver hurts,” I complain.

“Have some more rum, Gingie Poo.”

Then we’re on the road with the heater blasting and Melrose, dear Melrose, behind us. And I didn’t even get a good look around. Coming off the entrance ramp onto the slushy Interstate, we get stuck behind a slow-moving 18-wheeler, dirty wet snow clinging to its flanks.

“Why don’t you look at property here if you like it so much?”

“Yeah, like I can afford it.”

“You just—” he starts to say, and then we both scream as a huge rock ricochets off the semi’s wheels and hits our windshield with a violent crack.

“Shit!”

“That’s gonna need some crackstop.”

“Jesus, I’m surprised the airbags didn’t deploy.”

My heartrate slows down and I reach for the radio. “It’s XM for the way home. I need my satellite radio fix.”

“Fine. But if there’s Peter Cetera, you have to change the channel. I hate him with a hatred reserved for Nazis and the guy who convinced Garrison Keillor he could sing.”

“I know you do, you poor man.” I scan through the channels and stop at channel 62, Heart and Soul, playing After 7. “Oh-ho,” I laugh. “This one.”

Can’t stop… the boys from After 7 croon, and go on to describe how they’re diggin’ on and bein’ dug by their special lady.

“Yeah, I remember this one. What were you, in preschool?”

“I distinctly remember this new jack hit from my high school days,” I protest. Then the song cuts out mid-chorus.

“Why’d you change it?”

“I didn’t.”

We watch the digital numbers morph from 62 down through 28, pausing there, then continuing on to channel 4. The 40’s on 4.

…in Shangri-La…

“Is that Peggy Lee?” George knows all the greats.

I read the display. “Yeah. But I didn’t change it.”

Peggy Lee’s smoky voice curls out of the Subaru’s crappy speakers.

“That is great,” gushes George. “Write that song down. Get my notebook and write that down.”

The song ends, and tinny big band music squawks at us. I flip the dial.

“Now what’re you doing?”

“I wanna listen to Deep Tracks.”

“Deep Tracks. I’ll show you deep tracks.”

The Rolling Stones are wailing about how it’s allllll over now…

“This isn’t a deep track,” George complains. I turn up the volume and sit back and listen to the Stones. A song from The Faces comes on next. And the channel changes again, all on its own.

“You’re not doing that,” George observes.

“No shit.”

“Is it broken?”

“Just watch the road, I don’t know.” I watch the numbers flip back to 4.

It’s Doris Day and Buddy Clark, apparently, and they love somebody.

“Why’s it keep going back to channel 4?”

“Pull over,” I tell George. “There’s a gas station at the next exit.”

He doesn’t say anything, so I know he’ll do it.

Before we get off the Interstate, I change the channel again. Back to Deep Tracks. Only a few verses of Mott the Hoople, and then we’re back to the 40’s on 4. Woody Herman, with that old feeling.

George pulls off the road and into the glare of an Exxon pump island, coasting through until he parks the Subaru at the edge of the store, near a dumpster and a weedy field.

“Okay, what’s wrong with this thing. Wait. I need coffee first. Aw, dammit. My lucky mug’s still nasty.”

“Didn’t you bring your temporary lucky mug?”

“Nooo. Why would I bring that when I knew I was gonna get my real lucky mug?”

“Go get coffee. You can deal with a To-Go cup. I’ll figure out the radio. You’ll just get mad and punch it.”

“I would.”

“Get me hot cocoa.”

“Hot cocoa?! Nine-year-old kids drink that!”

He leaves me with the engine running. I play with the dial on the satellite radio, trying different stations and waiting. Nothing happens now. I leave it on Hair Nation, it stays on Hair Nation. Well, whatever. I get out of the car and let the snow tickle my face. It fluffs onto the curb and the newspaper racks, but it won’t last. Spring snow always melts within a few hours.

“Did you fix it?” George rejoins me, and we climb back inside the Forester. He shuts his door, and I’m about to take a sip of my cocoa when I feel suddenly nervous, as if a stranger has just walked up to my window. I look out into the snowflaked night, but there’s no one there. Someone’s behind us?

I turn around in my seat.

George is fussing with dials on the dashboard. “Why’s it cold in here again? Why’d you turn off the heater? Did you fix the radio? Didjoo fixit didjoo fixit didjoo fixit?”

“Shut up for a second!”

He slurps coffee. “Aahhh that’s gooood.”

“I feel like someone else just got into the car with us.”

“What?”

On the radio, Poison stops doing “Fallen Angel,” and the XM channels scroll down to 4. Dinah Shore and a full horn section.

…blues in the night…

“You didn’t fix it,” George sulks.

“It’s not broken,” I shiver. “Something’s doing that. Do you smell that?”

“Whaddayou mean?”

“Carnations.”

“Yeah, but did you fix the radio.”

“I’m telling you, it’s a ghost.”

“Aw, what, you see a dead body and now you’re all, I see dead bodies…”

“It’s dead people.”

“Well, yeah. You claim to.”

“I’m just saying…” Just what am I saying?

Dinah Shore keeps singing about the blues in the night.

I turn again to the back seat, and there he is. Donagh Doyle.

“George,” I squeak.

“Ginger.” He slurps more coffee. “I can’t wait to clean out my lucky mug.”

“George,” I grind out through clenched teeth.

“Ginger. We’re only twenty miles from Rocker. You ready to go to Sagebrush Sam’s now? Meth-ed out Butte girls with some fiiiine tat-tays waitin’.”

Donagh Doyle doesn’t look at me, but he is smiling. Like he’s listening to some old-time favorite radio show. He’s wearing that dark suit and the bolo tie, but I can see right through him to the pile of papers and George’s crumpled Montana Grizzlies sweatshirt on the backseat.

“There is a ghost in the back seat, George.”

“That’s funny. Very funny. I’m not falling for that. When we get to Rocker, we’re gonna get you even drunker.”

“Just turn around and look. Look at him.” Dead Donagh Doyle, duded up in his spectral suit and cowboy boots.

“I’ll look when we get to Rocker.” George reaches out and bumps my arm, changes the channel. “I dig Dinah Shore, but how ’bout the Bob Dylan Radio Hour?”

Donagh Doyle frowns, and then he looks right at me with his sorrowful eyes. I suppose they are eyes that saw his childhood sweetheart grow old, saw wild horses running across the Big Hole Valley, saw bombs rain down on Germany from the belly of a flying fortress. But now, they’re the hopeful, somewhat lost eyes of a hitchhiker who’s just hoping you’re going his way for a while and maybe you like listening to the wartime era hits.

“Can we leave it on the 40’s on 4?” I ask George. “At least till we get to Rocker?”

 

The Curse of the Katz

by Leonard Schlenz

 

Mickey’s Tavern is a puzzling place. It’s a beer joint with a tiny touch of class, part saloon, part museum; it’s a morning hangout for feral hippies with gray ponytails, a veteran’s foxhole away from the cold reality of a drizzly city in November. On the glass shelves behind the bar sit mementos from the great sea battles, little basswood ships and carved sailors. They sit in front of a very large mirror that pretends to double the seductive assembly of spirits in Mickey’s little corner lot.

Like a lot of the older taverns, its old pine floors are baptized in a perfume of spilt beer, and you can still smell the Camel smoke from the fifties, and you don’t have to be real perceptive to sense the confessional resonance of a million regrets embedded in the plaster wall. The owner, Mickey, says the place has character; the neighbors call it blight, an eyesore that attracts the worst kind.

Like a lot of beer joints, you have three choices of draft beer, and you can buy a shot of just about anything, but you won’t be ordering a Mai Tai or a Tainted Heart or a Mojito there, unless you go behind the bar and fix it yourself. From the inside of Mickey’s the only reality is the distant evening traffic zipping home through the drizzle to the south of town, or now and again, the heavy west door whooshing open, letting in a burst of autumn setting sun. The regulars will look over at the squeaky door each and every time and squint into the sudden brightness as if they’re expecting someone.

It’s a special day, “Half price for everything except the good stuff,” Mickey says. The calendar date is circled. Drinks are always half price on that day, but this anniversary is an anniversary numbered in the tens, and so extra special.

A rabble of drinkers usually lingers inside the place from noon on. Today is not much different for them except that Mickey lights some candles; it’s a candlelight vigil, sort of, related to all those relics of war that line the altar behind the bar where Mickey wipes a glass mug with a rag.

The clientele; they’re working people, and people without work, and every now and then people in nice clothes who walk in by accident, but mostly they smell of gas and oil, asphalt or burnt rubber, or even the smell of dumpsters where a few of them have slept the previous night.

Darryl, Mickey’s sort-of partner, is especially nervous today. Because of the curse.

He doesn’t hear what anybody says because he sits there talking to himself, monitoring the door that lets in the traffic, along with the whiffs of tobacco smoke from those who linger outside in the cold. It’s a day of remembrance. Remembering when you could smoke in your bunk back in ’44, and how, now, you can’t smoke in your own place. But mostly, remembering those scary days waiting for the Zeros to come buzzing in with the sun behind their tails. This frosty day is a day of atonement, though Mickey and Darryl don’t quite know the extent of the atoning to be done.

Snuggled between the Bacardi and the Ballantine’s is the centerpiece of Mickey’s Tavern, a hunk of twisted metal no bigger than half a piece of burnt toast; it’s a piece of charred shrapnel from the frigate they called the Katz, pulled out of Darryl’s backside, a harsh reminder of the guts of the boiler room where Mickey and Darryl traded shifts back when. The shrapnel honors that one day when the Japs left the Katz burning and melting and badly punctured as she bounced like a giant discarded cork off the coast of Formosa. Darryl has told many a tale with the relic held gently in his hand, and when he’s a bit tipsy he swears it beats like a little heart.

Of course there’s more to the Tavern’s artifacts than a hunk of charred metal. There’s lots of old ship stuff from the big war, shell casings from the Army/Navy surplus store down the street that hold the pretzels, black and white photos of battleships and cruisers, a picture of two sailors, smiling for the camera, arms joined over the shoulders like woven rope… Mickey and Darryl at eighteen. It’s November and cold on South Broadway, but you can see from the pictures how hot and humid it was back then in the South China Sea, and that’s where their thoughts still float after all these years. In those old black-and-white photos.

On the east wall are yellowed articles from newspapers and some overhead shots on the cover of magazines… of big ships with big wakes. One of the regulars sets his mug on the bar and asks for a refill, and whispers, “What’s with Darryl? He seems more out of it than usual.”

Mickey just shrugs. It’s nobody’s damn business. A man pushing on in years can have his own special stresses, those which come from noise, for example, which occurs to him now because it is in fact getting noisier as the early evening evolves, and it’s not the sun but nightfall that lingers just outside the door. But that’s not it either. Darryl is talking at the mirror like it was a big screen TV. The war is in the mirror. He’s asked Mickey to see it too, but Mickey doesn’t see it. Doesn’t want to see it.

Crunching gravel starts the evening off; the clientele begins to ease their old roadsters into place on the gravel lot, and hike their choppers up onto their stands. Mickey’s Tavern can be a rough place. It’s best to stay out, go someplace else on Saturday night if you’re not a regular. And it’s understood that troubles are handled inside, without police, as no one would want Mickey to lose his liquor license. Dirty laundry is hung inside, not outside. Mickey runs a tight ship.

Darryl presides at the end of the bar; Mickey does the bartending. The poolroom clicks and clacks quietly like distant ack-ack fire, and outside, somebody tinkers with a chopper and it pops and grumbles, seeking that perfect pitch. Darryl rises from his stool and shuffles into the poolroom. “Where you goin’ Darryl?”

“Just seein’ if anybody needs anything,” Darryl says. He helps out where he can though he’s had no business interest in the tavern for years. Darryl is first in, last out. Though he’s old by some standards, he’s grizzled and greasy, not too old to stand under oil pans part of the day helping his boy in the shop. Mickey understands that when Darryl sits at the bar bobbing his head, looking into that mirror, he’s looking up at the sea.

It seems like yesterday to Mickey, the sinking of the Katz. The ship was cursed from the start. She should have been christened with holy water what with its faulty boiler and single-minded navigation. It’s an old story. Worn out after all these years. But it just wasn’t fair the others got to die. The boiler crew, Mickey and Darryl and Graves, survived the Japs, and then the sharks, but then Graves, even Graves just disappeared afterwards. Never wrote. No postcards from Waikiki. Nothing. Leaving just the two of them.

Or so they made themselves believe all those years. But this was a special anniversary, the end of the curse. Where the buck stopped. They’d only recently talked it through, and tonight Darryl says, “Enough already. We can’t go on with the lie.”

“Shut up, Darryl.”

“It’s not up to us anymore, Mick. Like they say, our comeuppance will arrive like a thief in the night and the thief is at the door. Seaman Graves is not in Hawaii. Never was.” Darryl looks into the giant mirror; all the action is above deck, the ack-ack guns reverberating below deck; he knows the silver fish are speeding towards them… “The Katz has come home to roost. We let him down. And you damn well know it.”

It’s a quieter night than usual. There’re no fights yet. Nothing to write home about as they say. Except for maybe a last note in the diary, a goodbye note, “Let it go Darryl. We suffered enough.”
“Look in the mirror, Mick. It’s calling us. The Katz is calling us back.”

And finally, Mickey, the owner of Mickey’s Tavern, begins to see, maybe not in the mirror like his old friend, but he sees; he is once again back in the belly of a frigate, huffing and puffing in the deep blue sea. Inside the Katz. In the warm blue sea. And those in the belly of the cursed beast tending to the boiler are the most at risk.

*****

And from inside the perimeter walls, the entire footprint of Mickey’s beer joint, there is a bleating like the bleating of sheep, or to Mickey and Darryl the sound of melting metal groaning and men moaning; and the sweating walls surely are the bulkheads leaking.

But not entirely believing his own eyes and his own ears, Mickey says, “I think we’ve sprung a leak somewhere,” and him and Darryl both stand there with their mouths open like kids in a spook show, and they watch a small streamlet of water running down the wall from the ceiling next to the big clock that’s stopped. “Over there, too,” Darryl says. “Water’s trickling’ down that wall now. And what’s with the clock?”

Mickey shakes his head, “When it rains it pours. Ain’t that the damndest thing you ever saw… so is it raining outside?”

“Stopped a few hours ago, and as you don’t have an upstairs I don’t imagine there’s any plumbing up there which could burst.”

And then Darryl starts his mambo dance with the ghosts in his head, having ditched the boiler room with poor Graves trapped there, bobbing his head to avoid the imaginary strafing of a new wave of Zeros coming in against the sun, part of him wanting to go back for Graves…

“Why don’t you step outside and take a break, Darryl; see if you can see any way the water’s coming in from up there.”

“Hey, what’s with the water, boss?” It’s another regular who’s been hanging there for ten years, a big plumber with big hands, shaking his head and pointing to a little puddle starting to form near the dartboard.

“Go about your drinkin’, Leo. Mind your business. We’ll take care of it.”

“I’m a plumber, and it is my business, boss.”

Mickey takes a fresh mug from behind the bar and fills it, saying, “Here… on the house.”

The plumber shrugs and walks away, saying to his stubble-faced, skinny partner, “I told him, I told him. Not my problem.”

By now all thirty or so patrons are starting to notice the puddles on the floor. It’s widely assumed the restroom has run over again, and most have homes to go to and warm beds for the most part, and the water is not their concern, except one regular who’s walking unsteadily out of the poolroom with a cue stick pointed up. He has Chinese characters tattooed on his bald fat head and is crankier than the others and says, “Hey bartender… the shoes are getting squishy back there,” and another mumbles, his lips moving like slow honey squeezed out of a plastic jar, “Sure thing, Mickey boy, it’s gettin’ to be a regular swamp back there.”

“You don’t like it, y’all go somewheres else,” Mickey says, as Darryl is returning from outside shrugging his shoulders, and Mickey is starting to understand something the others, except Darryl, don’t, and he breathes in deeply, remembering the sweet sickening smell of men’s skin burned black in diesel oil in ’44; and he looks over to Darryl who’s quit dodging imaginary bullets for the time being, and they both stop to listen to the far-off screaming coming out of the walls where sharks munch down on cooked flesh, and dive bombers release their torment in wave after wave, and the bending ship shrieks as if the rivets themselves feel excruciating pain.

A voice in the crowd says, “You want I should open the door and let out the water?” It’s the plumber Leo, and he knows a bit about plumbing and he knows there’s no way in hell that water should be leaking down the walls like Niagara Falls.

“Nope,” Mickey says. “Just drink up and get out. All of you, outta’ here, we’re closing up.” Most of the crowd has left already and the water is a good three inches deep now. The last man slips and departs on his butt with the rushing water and the delirious hooting of his companions.

It’s just the two of them now and the floor is six inches deep in warm water and rising, and the lights start to flicker and the neon blue and red which encircles St. Pauli Girl turns dull as cinder. The jukebox and the girly pinball go next, their neon sputtering and dying with hardly a fight. All that remains is the fragrant candlelight. There’s enough light from the candles and the city outside to make out the steady stream of water rippling down next to the calendar, the calendar of U.S. Naval War Ships, and making slurping sounds, where little maelstroms no bigger than bathtub swirls find openings in the pine floor, beneath which is the cellar where the kegs are stored and boxes of liquor, and cases of bottled beer; and that’s where sits the old cast iron boiler built in the twenties. And now Darryl says to Mickey, “I sure wish I knew the words to that sailor poem.”

“Secure the west bulkhead!”

“No, that ain’t it.”

“Damn it, Darryl. This was your doing, now secure the west bulkhead!”

Mickey’s in charge; and Darryl follows orders like it was only natural for him, and he sloshes his way through the water to the door and pulls it snug, then bolts it. Out of habit he moves to the window, outside of which there’s actually a night-lit city he’d forgotten about, where his boy lives, and where his grandkids are probably home watching TV. He turns the cardboard sign from Open to Closed. He knows deep down that it’s not the Japs, but the Lord, that will have the better of this night. “I’ve got more candles,” Mickey says, and he wades through the water back behind the bar where he opens a cupboard and pulls out two big candles mounted in silver gravy boats. “Got a match, Darryl?”

“Course I got a match,” Darryl says, and he wades back through the water still flowing in ripples down each wall like a contrived water display, or some fancy artwork on a new slick marble building. The walls are still bleating; he pulls out his Zippo and lights each candle. The water is up to their knees. It’s warm, and he lights a Marlboro while he’s at it, inhales and holds it in his lungs for a while like it’s his last.

“Proceed to the boiler room. Get Seaman Graves out of there before it blows.”

“You know we could drown down there,” Darryl says.

“We are the boiler tenders, Darryl, so tend your boilers!”

Each takes a candle. Mickey leads the way through the dancing shadows. The trap door is next to the restrooms in the poolroom. Darryl holds Mickey’s candle while Mickey reaches into the shallow water and unlocks the padlock on the trap door. He tugs it upward, letting a river of water disappear into the darkness below. It takes both of them to lift it fully open and Mickey leans it against the wall.

“Maybe this time we’ll get it right,” Mickey says. He looks back into the bar area but it’s too dark to see much. A steady stream of warm water pours down the wooden stairs and Mickey grabs onto a rail with one hand and holds his candle with the other. “Here goes nothing… it’s slippery, Darryl… watch your step,” he says as he’s sucked straight down in a swirl of warm water and floor trash.

Darryl is old but he’s wiry and strong, and he grabs the slippery railing, “I’m right behind you.” Though it’s in two feet of water, the boiler is a monster of growling fire, sucking air and rumbling. But beginning to sputter. “The water’s already killing it,” Mickey says. “I’m not sure what there is to do here.”

The cellar is cavernous and dark, the air smelling of damp cement. Holding their candles upward they slosh into the darkness towards the diminishing glow and the warmth of the boiler. Empties float nearly three feet above the floor now and Mickey stands at five foot six, Darryl to slightly more. Mickey makes a pirouette with his candle, casting shadows on twenty thousand dollars of inventory, old doorknobs, and broken stools. He yells, “Graves? Graves? You in here, Graves? For god’s sake come on out.”

“Water’s coming fast now,” Darryl says, and they watch it wrap the wooden stairs in swirls, then they hear the thump of the trap door slamming shut, sucked inward by the rushing sea, and they listen as the water still hits the floor above like a tropical thunderstorm, and all the time running through every crevice of the old tavern down down down to the cellar, down to the timbers that brace the ship, both candles flickering.

“Don’t think we could lift that door again if we wanted to,” Darryl says. “And I think the boiler’s had it.”

And then he too shouts out, “Graves? Seaman Graves?”

“She’s a goner all right.”

“But what about Graves?” Darryl says, as a splash hits his candle and it sputters, sending up a smoky whiff of candle wax. He pulls out his Zippo but it’s futile to relight it. Mickey’s candle is dim as well and they shiver.

“People gonna’ wonder where all that water came from,” Darryl says with a hint of humor, and in the lingering flickering candle light Mickey sees a twinkle in Darryl’s eye.

They’re ready, as they have been for some time, since ’44, “Seaman Graves, are you there, Graves?”

Mickey’s Tavern is a watery tomb that smells of oil and fire, and the nauseating sweet smell of burning sailors, and now, above, they can still hear the faint sounds of strafing, the buzzing of dive bombers, and in their hearts they feel a blessed peace as they do their level best to do right by Seaman Graves.